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Should You Use Amex SPG on Non-Bonus Categories if You Don’t Have Chase Freedom Unlimited?

If you’ve been around this hobby for some time, you’ve probably heard one “absolute” truth over and over again: SPG point is the most valuable out there. Period.

And to an extent, this is definitely the case. If I were given a choice of 100K Ultimate Rewards and 100K SPG points, I would probably pick the latter. After all, SPG currency is so hard to accumulate and Amex only lets you have one sign up bonus per lifetime. Add to it the recent merger with Marriott, plus plethora of airline partners, and it’s easy to see why SPG point is so darn valuable.

But if I had to pick just one flexible currency for everyday spending, I would make it Ultimate Rewards, hands down. I’ve already written a post where I said that when comparing apples to apples, UR point is superior to MR. Obviously, it’s YMMV kind of deal, and there is nothing wrong with accumulating both. But for families who take even a few trips per year, the simplicity of Chase proprietary currency can’t be beat.

Lately I’ve been seeing more and more die-hard UR fans say that they prefer to accumulate SPG points on non-bonus spending categories if they don’t happen to have Chase Freedom Unlimited. The latter earns 1.5 UR points on everything and SPG card only earns 1 point. Most people value 1.5 UR points higher that 1 SPG point, but not all.

Let’s assume that due to 5/24 rule, you can’t apply for Chase Freedom Unlimited. Should you perhaps just stick to UR combo of Chase Sapphire Reserve/Freedom? Or should you diversify and add Amex SPG into the mix? It really depends.

When you may want to switch to Amex SPG

First of all, keep in mind that by hanging on to Amex SPG long-term, you are paying an annual fee of $95. You should always factor it in when doing calculations.

Sure, you can usually make up for it via Amex “Offers for You” program, but you can just get a no-fee American Express card instead and make a profit. Business version of Amex SPG is  a different beast since you get club lounge access, so the fee can be easily justified if you frequently stay at Sheraton.

Anyway, every person is different, so I’m not going to make blanket statements. But here are a few scenarios where it could make sense to choose SPG points over UR points on non-bonus spending, even if you  have Chase Freedom Unlimited in addition to  Chase Sapphire Reserve:

1) You want to stay at category 1 and 2  SPG properties (2,000-3,000 points on weekends) and 1-3 category  Marriott hotels (7,500-15,000 points anytime). You can instantly transfer from SPG to Marriott at 1:3 rate. This scenario becomes even more compelling if you plan to stay 5 consecutive nights at Marriott (last night being free).

2) You frequently use Amtrak. SPG is the only partner of the program and points transfer 1:1. Since you can get close to three cents per Amtrak point towards rail fares, this is a very good option for some.

3) You are saving points for a  Marriott package. I wrote about Southwest Companion Pass arbitrage opportunity that will go away on March 31st.  But there are plenty of other options like United, Alaska, Avios, Korean Sky Pass and more. Depending on your plans, those could be very compelling also.

4) You need to top off an account that doesn’t partner with UR program. Alaska and AAdvantage come to mind.

5) You need to stay at a fancy SPG or Marriott property over a major holiday (like New Year’s Eve) or a special event when the rates are through the roof.

Otherwise, you may want to stick to good ole’ UR program. One of my friends is flying to San Francisco with her husband at the end of April. They are nice people who don’t have a lot of money, so I offered to cover one night near the airport with my UR stash.

We checked on various options, and there was a special deal on Westin:

Here is what SPG program wanted for the same property:

Once you add the taxes, you can see that the paid rate matches the one you can get via UR travel portal. Any reasonable person would just save their SPG points and pay cash. But since you have UR currency, you can have the best of both worlds. You don’t have to part with cash, which is always a plus.

Well, technically, you can redeem 8,000 UR points for $80, but since you are getting 50% bonus on the hotel you want anyway, why not use your stash? After all, that’s why you are accumulating the points in the first place. It does, of course, depend on the season, and if you want the same hotel during a special event, it will cost you more. But in general, you should be able to find an airport property for $180 all-in or 12,000 UR points redeemed via CSR.

So, if you are looking at SPG or Marriott properties that cost 10,000 and 30,000 points per night respectively, you may want to stick with just earning UR currency. After all, 10,000 UR points can book you a $150 hotel room, ANY hotel room. It can be an SPG property or a condo, which is a far superior option for families with kids.

You will have far more flexibility, plus don’t forget, you can always cash in your UR points towards statement credit on 1:1 basis. SPG points may be the most valuable (in theory), but UR points are the most flexible.

Size matters

If at the moment you have very few SPG points, it will take you some time to accumulate the amount you need for any redemption. For hotels, that means at least 2,000 points for a cat.1 property on a weekend. That’s at least $2,000 in spending, a good chunk of money.

Instead, you can just add points to your existing UR stash and put them to good use tomorrow if the need arises. You’ll receive 1.5 cents towards travel or perhaps transfer your points for a low-category Hyatt stay. A UR point in a hand is worth two SPG points in a bush. OK, maybe not quite, but you get what I’m trying to say. A point is only worth something when it’s actually redeemed.

CSR vs. Amex SPG

There is absolutely no question that if you can pick up 100K points bonus on Chase Sapphire Reserve in branch, you should go for it. You only have till March 11th to do so. You can see my post Amex SPG vs. CSR vs. Merrill +Visa Signature. Be aware, Merrill card is no longer in the picture, so it’s now down to those two offers. Well, technically, there is also Wells Fargo Propel World, and I definitely recommend you consider it as well.

But if you are relatively new to the game and are looking for a card that earns flexible points, it’s tough to beat CSR. Note that it doesn’t pay me commission. If for whatever reason you can’t apply for CSR, Amex SPG is a very compelling offer. Sure, 35,000 points may not seem like much. But if you are looking to stay at cat. 2 hotel, that’s almost ten nights from just one card. Not too shabby.

One “sweet spot” hotel I’ve mentioned before is Four Points by Sheraton Niagara Falls Fallsview It’s a category 2, which means it costs 3,000 points on weekends, 4,000 points on weekdays. You just can’t beat this deal during summer when rates are $150 per night. There are many other good uses, of course, so I recommend you see this post for more details.

You have to apply before April 5th in order to get the increased bonus on both personal and business versions of Amex SPG card. They do pay us commission if you feel inclined to support the blog. Nancy and I believe in 100% transparency when it comes to our readers, even if it’s detrimental to our bottom line (and it often is).

Be aware, this offer may come back later on, you never know. But it is definitely a good deal, just not as good as 100K points bonus on CSR.

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Author: Leana

Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.

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19 thoughts on “Should You Use Amex SPG on Non-Bonus Categories if You Don’t Have Chase Freedom Unlimited?

  1. I love this kind of analysis! Glad I found your site. This is a question I debated, too. In the end, we’re doing both. I have the SPG card, Freedom, and now my own CSR. My husband has his CSR and now a Freedom Unlimited.

    Some of our bills don’t take AmEx, so in that situation the Unlimited makes perfect sense.

    Once I complete the minimum spending on my CSR, I will use the SPG card if I can’t get a bonus category for my Chase cards.

    I (along with every other cardholder) is so curious to see what will happen with the SPG card once the Marriott merger is complete. Will it even exist?

    • @Kacie Thanks for your kind words! I think we are all curious as to what happens to Amex SPG card down the road. My guess is that it will be discontinued, but you never know. Look at Barclay Aviator AAdvantage card. Two competing banks are issuing AA miles, very weird. Maybe the same will happen to SPG, though I doubt it. Eventually, SPG point will probably cease to exist since Marriott is now in charge.
      As far as using Amex SPG even though you have Freedom Unlimited, it can definitely make sense. I wouldn’t because I speculatively value SPG point at around 1.5 cents and UR point at 1.25 cents. So to me it’s a no-brainer. But everyone is different and if you fall into one of the categories I’ve listed, then why not.
      It does also depend on scale. If you have a lot of non-bonus spending and can rack up SPG points fairly quickly, you may come out ahead.

      • If you value an dog point at $.015 and UR at $.0125 why not just use a 2% cash back card for all unbonused spend?

      • Right, and two banks issue Hilton cards: Citi and AmEx. I am not sure of the history behind that.

        To clarify, I don’t hold the Unlimited, my husband does right now. So we will use his card for online bills that don’t take AmEx, and he will use it for his everyday non-travel/dining purchases.

        Since I hold the Freedom (5x category card), I will use that if it gets a bonus, or my CSR while i’m meeting the minimum spend, and my Starwood AmEx if there is a non-category bonus.

        If my husband and I are out together and need to decide which card for which purpose, I guess we’ll just sort it out on the fly.

    • @Freqflyer Good point! I definitely think 2% cash back card is the gold standard. The post I’ve linked to (UR vs. MR) mentions it as well. The problem is, I don’t currently have one. At the moment, I only apply for cards that come with a hefty sign-up bonus. Unfortunately, 2% cash back cards (without annual fee) don’t fall into this category.

      So, whatever little non-bonus spending I have goes on Chase Freedom Unlimited. It works for me, because I get 2.25 cents towards travel courtesy of CSR. Once I cancel CSR, I’ll look into other options. But honestly, I have very little spending aside from one channelled toward new bonuses, so I don’t obsess over it too much. I don’t have Amex SPG, so it was more of a hypothetical scenario.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. We have the Chase Freedom (with the bonus categories) and CSR, and hubby and I ran into that predicament this morning. We’re buying concert tickets and decided to put them on the Amex SPG. We don’t have a ton of SPG points, but will have enough to be able to get the 5,000 point bonus if we transfer to an airline partner – that sure came in handy for our Hawaii flights. Thanks for the write up.

    • @Stephanie Glad you found my write-up beneficial! In general, 1 SPG point is more valuable than 1 UR point, so I can see why you decided to go this route. It really depends on your goals and how quickly you can reach desired redemption threshold. Just don’t forget to factor in that $95 annual fee on Amex SPG when you do the math. Otherwise, your logic is sound.

  3. For the “why not just do a 2% back card,” I think it’s because the Unlimited indeed does earn 2.25% or better when paired with a premium Chase card. For instance, the Unlimited+CSR means I can transfer my Unlimited points to a partner at 1:1.

    Let’s use an example with Southwest. We recently booked round-trip flights to DC for 5,997 points (let’s round to 6,000). Cash fare for the same flight was $118.

    If I spent $4,000 on my Unlimited, that would get me 6,000 UR. $118/4000= $0.0295 per point. Way better than a flat 2% card.

    Another option is a 5,000 point/night Hyatt. I’d need to spend about $3,333 on my Unlimited to have enough points for a one-night stay at a category 1. I chose a Hyatt Place near the airport just as an example. For a sample weekend night in April, the cheapest cash rate is $203.

    So, $203/3333 Unlimited spending = $0.06 per dollar!

    Suddenly the 1.5x card looks way better than a 2%, know what I mean?

    I still think the SPG AmEx is a decent card and you can also get better than a $0.02 value out of it depending on the redemptions. I’m seeing that for my purposes, the flexibility and options with UR are better suited for my travel needs right now.

    Oh, and keeping a premium Chase card is the ticket for making sure the Freedom and Freedom Unlimited cards are seeing their full potential. I argue that keeping the CSR is a WAY better value than downgrading to the CSP. The 3x vs 2x on travel/dining swings the break-even point in favor of CSR, plus when you factor in the travel credit and travel insurance card perks plus roadside assistance on the CSR, it is worth the extra $46 in annual fee.

    (I am assuming a net AF of $141 for CSR ($450-300 travel credit, minus $9 for the 3x points you will earn on purchases that get you the travel credit, so that gets $141. Subtract the $95 AF of CSP, and that is a $46 difference). Pretty decent keeper card, and with the 5/24 rules, not being able to get another premium Chase card would decrease the value of your other chase cards by a lot.

  4. Oh, and in the same token it makes the Chase Freedom 5x category even more bananas. The same Southwest flight would only require that I spend $1,200 in bonus category for my Freedom, and I’d get $118/1,200= $0.098 on that spending.

    For the Hyatt hotel example, it becomes $203/$1,000 in Freedom spending or an absurd 20.3% benefit on that spending. And really, that cash rate is the cheapest room for that night, but they have several rooms available for 5,000 Hyatt points. I could get a more expensive room as far as cash rate goes, while keeping the points redemption the same.

    • @Kacie That’s a very nice analysis and I agree, UR points can unlock value that is far greater that 2% cash back. But one needs to be careful because annual fee can be a major deal breaker unless you take advantage of the perks AND actually want to travel. Not everyone does. That’s why I recommend folks do the math and decide if collecting flexible points is the way to go.

      For many, straight cash back is preferable. It’s a simple, no hassle option, and most busy families like that. I believe FreqFlyer was specifically addressing my personal valuation, which is why he made this comment. Going by my numbers, 2% cash back is superior. However, I don’t currently have that type of card in my possession, plus, as you’ve mentioned, having CSR changes value proposition.
      On Freedom Unlimited and regular Chase Freedom, you can simply add each other as authorized users. There is no cost, and spouses can combine UR points across multiple accounts for free. I would do that, unless you are trying to stay under 5/24 radar.

      • I threw out a quick blog post, linking here. Thanks for letting me flesh out some ideas in the comments 🙂

        I do think the annual fee can be a deal-breaker for some people. For the longest time, I avoided annual fees on principle. There were years where we traveled much less since our kids were so little, and the math wouldn’t have made sense.

        But for folks who are wanting to travel or increase their travels thanks to points, those premium cards are really worth considering. For those who prefer just cash back/statement credits, a no-fee card or the Everyday Preferred make sense if they can maximize the grocery payout.

    • @Kacie Nice! You are quick on your feet. 🙂 Thanks for linking to my post. We think a lot alike, except I’m still a bit ruthless when it comes to annual fees. I just can’t justify $450 fee on CSR, no matter how super duper valuable it is. Plus, I’m still finding lucrative sign-up bonuses to chase after, though that may change in a near future. But everyone is different, so I think keeping CSR makes sense for many families, even those who travel occasionally.
      BTW, I just transferred 5,000 UR points for Cat. 1 Hyatt redemption. I agree, you can’t beat that!

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  6. @Leana & @Kacie UR points definitely can be valuable. I was able to get $0.03 value out of them for Delta (via Korean Skypass) flights and a Hyatt that was running $450 per night. I was thinking of downgrading to the CSP, but I may need to run the numbers to find out if CSR may be the best route for my family.

    • @Stephanie Absolutely! UR points are amazing. You’ve mentioned two sweet spots: expensive Hyatt properties and instant transfer to Korean SkyPass for redemption to Hawaii. There are other good uses as well.
      As far as downgrading to CSP, definitely crunch the numbers. To me, the biggest reasons to stick with CSR are airport lounge access and ability to redeem points at 1.5 cents towards travel. If you don’t plan to take advantage of those,it might be best to just downgrade to CSP.

  7. Part of why the CSR is a good keeper card for our family (not all, I get it!) is my husband travels for work a bit. He puts his car, flight, hotel on the card and gets reimbursed, so that helps a lot. I like the added travel protections and perks on it, too. If he had something happen to his rental car, I like that we wouldn’t have to involve our own car insurance company, for example.

    I will keep my card for a bit too since I don’t want to burn any bridges with Chase and I think I will get some use out of it, but I don’t think it makes sense for me as a long-term card. Same with my SPG card…I will hold it until I see what happens with it (in case it is grandfathered in to something awesome and unavailable for new applications) but if not, then I dunno.

    • @Kacie I can absolutely see why CSR is a keeper for you guys. Since your husband has to travel for business, having primary insurance on car rental is a must. Other perks don’t hurt either. It is designed with business travelers in mind, so hanging on to it makes it a somewhat easy decision in your case.

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